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State: 'Deceptive' Detroit-Area Firefighters Charity Has Distributed Only $5,500 Of $4.2 Million Raised

LANSING (WWJ) - A charity that purportedly helps firefighters and those who have lost their homes to fire has apparently been ripping off sympathetic citizens.

The Michigan Attorney General's Office on Wednesday filed a cease and desist order against Firefighters Support Services of Wyandotte and its professional fundraiser, Associated Community Services of Southfield.

In the filing, Attorney General Bill Schuette alleges that Firefighters Support Services have included misleading, deceptive or false statements in their solicitations.

"This is another example of a sympathetic cause—firefighters and those losing their homes from fire—being exploited by scammers," Schuette said in a statement.

In soliciting donations, Schuette said Firefighters Support Services told citizens that it helps firefighters get better equipment and assists "families that have been burned out of their homes by providing them with food, shelter, and clothing" or "financial support."

Wyandotte's fire chief stresses that the charity is in no way associated with the Wyandotte Fire Department.

According to the state, Firefighters Support Services raised $4.2 million from donors throughout the nation, yet organizers were unable to identify any grants of food, shelter or clothing to families that have been burned out of their homes. Rather, the organization was only able to identify three grants totaling $5,586 to individuals -- not families -- for the purpose of fire loss relief.

The grants represent just one-tenth of one percent of the $4.2 million raised during this period, said Scheutte.

"The best defense against such scams is to do your homework or donate to a known charity," Scheutte cautioned donors. "You don't know who's on the other end of the call or whether you can trust them."

In addition, the state alleges that Firefighters Support Services has made numerous false statements on its annual financial statements that it files with both the IRS and the Attorney General. In particular, Firefighters Supports Services claims to run a blanket donation program for fire stations valued at roughly $500,000 per year. The state says the value of the program, which is based on a valuation of $20.83 per blanket, is vastly overstated.

According to the Attorney General's office, the blankets were purchased by Congress, i.e. by taxpayers, for $4.97 per blanket with the purpose of combating homelessness. The per-blanket cost even includes free shipping to charities around the country that have been endorsed to participate in the program. The state says that Firefighters Support Services, which has not been endorsed to participate in the Congressional program, obtains the blankets from the charity World Assist and pays thousands of dollars per shipment to a third-party, Charity Services International, to ship the blankets to various fire stations around the country.

Firefighters Support Services does not disclose this "charitable" program to donors, according to the state, and fraudulently describes the activity as providing "medical supplies to various fire departments" in reports to the IRS and the Attorney General.

As part of the cease and desist order, the Attorney General office announced its intention to bring a civil action seeking redress, including restitution, injunctive relief, and civil fines of up to $10,000 per violation for every one of Firefighters Support Services' more than two million violations.

In a statement, Associated Community Services said it is fully cooperating with the investigation.

"ACS is strongly committed to compliance and ethical standards while also taking very seriously its responsibility to assist nonprofits in their respective missions of helping others," the statement said. "As this is a pending legal matter, we are not able to comment on the specifics of the claims made by the Attorney General at this time. "

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